Growing up, Amy Bergstraesser, ’16, witnessed extreme poverty and political turmoil in Africa while her mother, a doctor and medical researcher, was working with AIDS and tuberculosis patients. Bergstraesser decided that she would, one day, make a difference in the world as well—by pursuing a career in the law.
So it was natural that she would look for a law school with strong international offerings, and she chose Michigan Law in no small part because of the Geneva Externship program.
“I demonstrated my interest in the Geneva Externship on my application,” says Bergstraesser, now an associate at Ogletree Deakins PC in Indianapolis. As a Geneva International Fellow, which the externs now are called, she worked for the World Health Organization during the Winter 2016 semester. “It lived up to all of my expectations, and it solidified my interest in international law. I was doing really interesting work every day.”
That’s been the goal of the Geneva Externship program since it began 10 years ago, says Steven R. Ratner, the Bruno Simma Collegiate Professor of Law, who founded the program. He envisioned an externship through which students could work for a multitude of international organizations in one location.
“There simply is no other law school that has this,” Ratner says of the diversity of experiences available to students, and the presence of an onsite faculty member. “I’ve heard so many students talk about how it was a transformative experience.”
Many positions are at organizations where Ratner has contacts, including United Nations programs and agencies, as well as other intergovernmental and nongovernmental organizations. Other connections have been made by the onsite professor (originally Claire Mahon and now Anna Nicol). Amy Sankaran, ’01, director of externships and pro bono programs, and Theresa Kaiser-Jarvis, assistant dean for international affairs, also work closely with the program and are active in finding the right placements.
“We do a lot of work on our end to maintain a really good relationship with the employers,” Ratner says. “The single most important reason is that we send students who can do the job.”
Eelco Szabó, legal director at Gavi (formerly the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation), agrees. “Michigan externs all rank among the top of the students I have worked with over a 20-year legal career. They are quick on the uptake, motivated, and are excellent sparring partners on a wide variety of legal issues. In a small legal team like ours, the externs essentially function as additional lawyers; their contributions are at a very high level.”
Nicol, the Geneva-based faculty member, maintains regular contact with the job supervisors to ensure the positive experience continues on both sides. “It is critical to maintain this consistency, given the transitory nature of mission-based work at the UN and the regular turnover of staff. This enables the Law School to ensure the quality of the student educational experience, including the appropriateness of the supervision and the student work,” she says. Nicol also organizes a guest lecture series in which a variety of local practitioners provide insight into myriad public international law careers and practices.
The program has been vital in shaping the careers of many externs. “My time with the International Service for Human Rights (ISHR) was invaluable. I’ve been in the private sector since graduating, but it gave me a front seat to what it meant to be a lawyer in any capacity—and all the better because I saw lawyers working for the greater good,” says Ashwini Habbu, ’09, an associate with Clifford Chance LLP in New York City. “I am indebted to the Law School for a lot of things, but the Geneva Externship program is one that I truly cherish.”